In Catholic Circles

An International News Roundup

Summer-Autumn 2008

In this Issue:

The Church and State

The Church and Contraception

The Church and Abortion

The Church and HIV/AIDS

End Notes

The Church and State

Bishops Seek to Make Abortion an Election Issue

In the run-up to the 2008 elections, some conservative Catholic bishops, the Pro-Life Activities Office of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and several conservative Catholic organizations made a concerted effort to create the impression that there is a monolithic world-view of what Catholics think about abortion. In addition, a number of Catholic bishops have used their position of authority to threaten sanctions against prochoice Catholic policymakers, including several threats to deny Communion and prohibitions against speaking on church property.

Catholic politicians who attracted the most attention included Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas (Bishop Joseph F. Naumann asked her to refrain from partaking in Communion); the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Senator Joseph Biden from Delaware (Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli said he is not permitted to speak at Catholic schools); and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (called in for a meeting with Archbishop George H. Niederauer). The latter two were the subject of several statements from individual bishops and the bishops’ conference after they spoke about their prochoice views in the media.

However, explicit calls for the denial of Communion came from bishops who had no jurisdiction over the politicians, including Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Bishop Joseph F.Martino of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Indeed, there seemed to be as many opinions as there are bishops. Biden’s pastor, Bishop Michael Saltarelli, for example, said he did not expect priests and others administering Communion to withhold it from politicians. “That is ultimately my responsibility,” he said, adding that he preferred “active engagement and dialogue.” This point was reiterated by Monsignor Joseph Rebman of a church in Brandywine, Delaware, where Sen. Biden has received Communion. He noted that “the bishops’ conference has left it to the individual bishops to decide how they want to handle it.”

The archbishop of Washington, DC, Donald Wuerl, said the decision of whether or not prochoice politicians should be given Communion is to be left up to local bishops. Wuerl said, “The bishops concluded that the responsibility to assess this situation is within a bishop’s own diocese and the proper application of canon law clearly rests with the individual bishop.” This decision comes with the stipulation that “a decision regarding the refusal of Holy Communion to an individual is one that should be made only after clear efforts to persuade and convince the person that their actions are wrong and bear moral consequences.”

Bishop Robert E. Mulvee of Providence, Rhode Island, said he was “personally convinced that communication, not excommunication, is the way to change minds and hearts” on this issue.

Even those who called for sanctions acknowledged that there were nuances. Archbishop Charles Chaput said that “Catholics can vote for pro-choice candidates if they vote for them despite— not because of—their prochoice views.”

In any case, it is unlikely that abortion will be a deciding factor for more than a small minority of Catholic voters. According to a poll of Catholic voters conducted by the prominent DC polling firm Belden Russonello & Stewart, 70 percent say that the views of Catholic bishops are unimportant to them in deciding for whom to vote, and 73 percent say they believe Catholic politicians are under no religious obligation to vote on issues the way the bishops recommend.

In addition, a Pew survey showed that abortion ranked 11th out of 12 concerns that voters considered very important in deciding how to vote—for both Catholics as well as the population at large. It ranked well below the bread-and-butter issues that are being highlighted by the candidates, such as the economy, the war in Iraq, energy, education and healthcare.

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The Church and Contraception

Progressive Groups Put Vatican on the Spot


An advertisement placed in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera calling on the pope to end the Vatican’s ban on contraception received a highly unusual response from a top Vatican official on the day it appeared, as it usually chooses to ignore campaigns that criticize its positions on such matters.

Marking the 40th anniversary of the Catholic hierarchy’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, Catholics for Choice, in partnership with more than 50 organizations across the world, published an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI calling on him to lift the Vatican’s ban on contraception. Humanae Vitae, the foundation stone for the Catholic hierarchy’s anticontraception policy, has had a catastrophic effect on the poor and powerless around the world, endangering women’s lives and leaving millions at risk of contracting HIV.

In a statement to the media, Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice and organizer of the initiative, said, “We are delighted that our strategy worked. Within hours of the ad appearing, we achieved our central objective of letting those who have continued with this fatally flawed policy know that Catholics the world over oppose the ban on contraception.”

“The response from that Vatican demonstrates that the church hierarchy is acutely aware that the ban on contraception has seriously harmed its relationship with Catholics in the pews. The ban delegitimizes the voice of the hierarchy with lawmakers and health professionals, who are only too aware that scientific and medical evidence definitively shows that maternal and child mortality, as well as HIV/AIDS could be reduced if more people had access to contraceptives. The response we forced from the Vatican today illustrates that the authorities know they are skating on thin ice.”

US Catholic Bishops Support Extremist Refusal Clause

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has come out strongly in favor of a proposal from the US Department of Health and Human Services to increase the strength of so-called “conscience clauses.” These clauses are more correctly referred to as “refusal” clauses, as they permit medical professionals to opt out of legally permitted procedures, including abortion and contraceptive services.

The new regulation goes several steps further than existing clauses. Under the proposed rule, individuals cannot be required to “perform or assist in the performance of any part of a health services program or research activity funded by [HHS].” The rule even allows practitioners who object to medical procedures to refuse to refer patients elsewhere. The proposed rule is so broadly written that it will not only excuse health workers who refuse to dispense birth control pills, emergency contraception and other forms of contraception, but also may be interpreted so as to affect referrals and counseling on issues seemingly unrelated to abortion, such as the provision of healthcare services to gays and lesbians or counseling to an HIV-positive patient.

Women’s health advocates argue that current federal conscience clauses already provide more than enough protection for those medical professionals who refuse to provide services to which they object, especially abortion, and that there is no need to expand these protections.

As outlined in a recent publication from Catholics for Choice, In Good Conscience, Catholic teachings on conscience are much more nuanced than is usually presented in legal and policy debates. The teachings require due deference to the conscience of others in making decisions; that is, healthcare providers must not dismiss the conscience of the person seeking care. If conscience truly is one’s “most secret core and his sanctuary [where] he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths,” as the Catechism states, how can anyone, or any institution for that matter, justify coercing someone into acting contrary to her or his conscience?


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The Church and Abortion

Spanish Government Proposes Liberalization of Abortion Laws

After dropping proposals to liberalize abortion laws after the 2004 election and in the run-up to the March 2008 elections, the Socialist government in Spain has said it will now move ahead with efforts to liberalize abortion laws and has appointed a panel that will propose legislation.

Current Spanish law allows abortions up to 12 weeks gestation in cases of rape or 22 weeks in cases of severe fetal abnormality. In cases of risks to the woman’s physical or mental health there is no limit. The Spanish government has suggested it would prefer a move toward the system in Britain, which permits abortion to be readily available until the 24th week of pregnancy.

A panel of 13 lawyers, doctors and other experts will review the current law and make proposals on how best to amend it. There are concerns that the current law is not applied evenly in Spain’s 17 semiautonomous regions and that many women have difficulty accessing the government funding to which they are entitled.

The Spanish government has been at loggerheads with the Catholic hierarchy since it passed legislation supporting same-sex marriages and speeding up divorce proceedings.

UK Parliament Votes to Retain Current Abortion Limits

Prochoice policymakers swept the board in a series of votes about current abortion laws in Great Britain. Despite a concerted campaign by the UK’sCatholic bishops, antichoice activists were routed on all votes that were held. Three of the votes sought to reduce the time limit for abortion, and others would have relaxed the rules against stem-cell and embryo research and opposed a ban on preimplantation screening in some circumstances.

The Parliament will revisit the bill for a final vote in October. At that time it will examine whether to extend the abortion law to Northern Ireland and whether to remove the requirement for two doctors to approve an abortion. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has called the UK government “to give consideration to the amendment of the abortion law so as to remove punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortion” and to consider extending the existing law to Northern Ireland.

New Prochoice Campaign in Ecuador

In a brazen act that publicly highlighted the problems associated with illegal abortion, the Coordinadora Juvenil por la Equidad de Género (Youth Committee for Gender Equity) unfurled a banner on a prominent statue, the Virgin de Panecillo, in the center of Quito, Ecuador, with the text “Safe abortion, 099004545.” The number is for a hotline that will provide women with information about safe abortion and other sexual health information.

The penal code in Ecuador prohibits abortion except in the cases of rape, when the pregnancy is a threat to the life or health of a pregnant woman or when the woman is mentally disabled. Current laws include jail sentences for women of between one and five years when they are found guilty of having an abortion. Those performing an abortion can go to jail for two to five years.

Illegal abortion is widely practiced in Ecuador. The World Health Organization estimates that about 95,000 abortions take place in Ecuador every year (30 per 1,000 women age 15-45). Only 200 legal abortions are registered each year. Annually, hospital figures show that between 20,000 and 30,000 women are admitted with complications arising from botched abortions. Abortion-related deaths are responsible for some 18 percent of maternal mortalities.

Multinational Poll Shows Support for Abortion Rights

A major international poll has shown that in 17 out of 18 nations polled, majorities reject using criminal penalties, such as fines and imprisonment, as a means to prevent abortion. More than half of the respondents (52%)said they wanted the abortion decision to be left up to the individual woman concerned, without government intervention.

In nine of the 18 nations, a majority says the government should leave these matters to the individual. This includes countries where abortion is legal: France (95%), Great Britain (81%), the United States (69%), Ukraine (70%), Russia (62%), and China (67%). But it also includes three countries with highly restrictive laws: two predominantly Catholic countries— Poland (66%) and Mexico (70%, though laws in Mexico have been liberalizing)—as well as South Korea (62%).

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Christians said that decisions about abortion are an individual’s responsibility; only eight percent favored punishment. Indonesia was the only country where a majority favored criminal penalties.

Interviews with 18,465 respondents were conducted in 18 countries representing 59 percent of the world’s population. This includes most of the largest countries in the world—China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Russia—as well as Mexico, Britain, France, Poland, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, the Palestinian Territories, Thailand and South Korea. The poll was carried out by, a collaborative research project of research centers from around the world, managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland.

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The Church and HIV/AIDS

Bishops in the Philippines Support Condom Use

According to a report in the Philippine Star, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has announced that married couples will be allowed to use condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV. The report was confirmed by Father Edwin Corros, the executive secretary of the CBCP’s EpiscopalCommission for Pastoral Care for Migrants and Itinerant People, but only as a“last resort,” he said.

The ruling comes in the latest version of the CBCP’s training manual on HIV/AIDS for pastoral workers. Fr. Corros said that the bishops were only allowing condom use to save lives and that before their use, couples should try abstinence and faithfulness. “We are not actually endorsing condom use. We would like to prevent deaths in the family.” However, he noted, people “have the right to express love to his or her partner… We have to think of ways [to address the problem of HIV], because it is not only the life of the victim that we have to consider but his or her family as well. This is how we look at the pastoral side.”

However, the other side of the hierarchy was in evidence at World Youth Day, during which Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa said that condom use in South Africa had not stopped the increase in the HIV infection rate—proving that promoting condoms didn’t work. “The country with the highest distribution rate of condoms is South Africa, and the opposite result is happening,” Cardinal Napier said. The church had faith in the ability of people to control their own lives and avoid HIV infection, without recourse to condoms. “You expect that because people are hearing from bishops, ‘You must use a condom,’ that they will do what the bishops say?”

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End Notes

Baltimore Cardinal Reins in Legionaries of Christ

According to an interview in the National Catholic Reporter, Archbishop Edward O’Brien of Baltimore has called on two associated groups, Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi, to give him a list and location of all their priests in his archdiocese, outline their youth activities, and stop all individual spiritual guidance with those under age 18. He wasresponding to concerns about the secrecy of the group and the fact that there had been several complaints about apparent coercion of its members and seminarians.

In the interview, O’Brien explained, “I’ve always suspected the flaws in the organization are endemic to it. There’s no remedying them, because it’s so deeply ingrained. There’s a sense of secrecy right from the seminary. The seminarians move two-by-two wherever they go. If one criticizes anything about the institution, the other one has to report it… All this flows into Regnum Christi as well. Nothing happens in Regnum Christi without the Legionaries.”

In addition to the information requested, O’Brien asked for updates every six months and the appointment of a priest who would act as a liaison with the archdiocese.

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“Welcome to the NFP Club. The first rule of the NFP Club is: You can’t talk to engaged couples about NFP —you’ll scare them away. You can’t talk to experienced older couples, either, or you’ll get an earful about the bad old days of rhythm-and-blues and 23 children.”

—A reminder about why fewer than two percent of Catholics use natural family planning as their primary method of family planning. [1]

first rulefamily planning. 1

“One final thing, Lord, I promise. This November could you keep an eye on all of us and see that the change that we embrace comes from Arizona and not Illinois?”

—The Rev. James Lisante, a Catholic priest from Long Island, N.Y. delivering the invocation at a Republican fundraiser in Manhattan on May 29. [2]


“Magic, fortune-telling and holding séances to contact the spirits of the dead are direct invitations to the Devil which he readily accepts…Even heterosexual promiscuity is a perversion; and intercourse, which belongs in the sanctuary of married love, can become a pathway not only for disease but also for evil spirits…young people especially are vulnerable and we must do what we can to protect them. The thin end of the wedge (soft drugs, yoga for relaxation, horoscopes just for fun and so on) is more dangerous than the thick end because it is more deceptive—an evil spirit tries to make his entry as unobtrusively as possible.”

—Father Jeremy Davies, exorcist for Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O’Connor, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, warns against moral decay.  [3]


“Demand is high, I sell 10-15 forged documents per week. People probably can’t be bothered listening to lectures on natural family planning methods.”


—A market trader in Lód´z on forged certificates confirming attendance at the premarital classes that are required for a church wedding in Poland. [4]

“It is very disgusting that we see gays at the center of attraction at the Santacruzan, which is suppose to be religious in nature…If they are devotees, they are religious and they look decent, I believe they have the right to join in. I think it would be better for us to see gays who act formally and decently in the Santacruzan rather than young and beautiful women who are not clean and [are] immoral.”

—Archbishop Oscar Cruz of Dagupan-Lingayen in the Philippines later said he did not oppose gays joining the religious procession as long as they acted with dignity and wore formal dresses. 

“For 41 years we’ve lived in a state-sponsored culture of death that has killed 5 million children, and we’re now surprised that some of the surviving children have turned out violent with no regard for the sanctity of life?”

—Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England, explains why he believes legal abortion leads to violent crime. [6]

“People seem to be quite shocked that perhaps a Catholic girl even uses contraception but it is really an important thing for women because one of the things about the book is about how women’s lives have changed. One of the reasons women’s lives have changed is that they have been able to control their fertility, it is an important issue.”

—Cherie Blair, Catholic wife of former UK prime minister Tony Blair. [7]

“As luminous and fruitful in the eyes of the faith as it is obscure and futile in the eyes of the world.”

—Pope Benedict xvi praises virginity. [8]

“I’ve always suspected the flaws in the organization are endemic to it. There’s no remedying them, because it’s so deeply ingrained. There’s a sense of secrecy right from the seminary. The seminarians move two-by-two wherever they go. If one criticizes anything about the institution, the other one has to report it…All this flows into Regnum Christi as well. Nothing happens in Regnum Christi without the Legionaries.”

—Archbishop Edward O’Brien of Baltimore, speaking after he had banned the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi from having one-on-one contact with anyone under 18. [9]



  1. Simcha Fisher, “It’s time to talk honestly about Natural Family Planning,”, July 30, 2008.
  2. Religion News Service, June 5, 2008.
  3. Jonathan Petre, “Yoga and horoscopes can lead to possession by Devil, claims Cardinal’s exorcist,” Mail on Sunday (London), May 25, 2008.
  4. Warsaw Voice, “Heard in Passing,” September 3, 2008.
  5. Arlie Calalo, “Archbishop Cruz defends gay queens,” Manila Standard, May 7, 2008.
  6. The West Australian, “Bishop blames abortion for crime,” August 28, 2008.
  7. Martha Linden, “‘Good Catholic Girl’ Cherie defends use of contraception,” May 20, 2008.
  8. Deutsche Presse-Agentur, “Pope says virginity is ‘luminous and fruitful’,” May 15, 2008.
  9. John L. Allen Jr., “Baltimore archbishop demands greater accountability from Legionaries of Christ,” June 12, 2008.
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